Early sexual victimization can create both immediate and long-term challenges for survivors. Prolonged and intrusive sexual abuse on the developmentally immature psyche of a child frequently contributes to the dilemmas of identity formation and development. Child sexual abuse impairs self-esteem, identity development, abilities to trust, and challenges with problem solving. As a result, the adolescent is extremely vulnerable to stress, and may develop a number of psychological disorders, such as, depression, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, alienation from school and peers, sexual problems, acting-out behaviors, self-injurious behaviors, substance abuse, and anxiety.
Child sexual abuse (CSA) creates barriers to the child’s integrity development, therefore, some survivors may struggle with profound problems in finding a sense of self in which bodily consciousness, feelings, and emotions are fully integrated. Unfortunately, survivors of CSA are more likely to fear, loathe, and punish their bodies in a number of different ways, including, but not limited to, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity, sexual repulsion, self-mutilation, somatic issues, etc.
Emotional as well as physical development usually occur in tandem, hence, physical changes usually occur following emotional growth so that the developing child has both the understanding as well as the maturity to cope with the changes. When a child is sexually abused physical changes often occur before emotional development has had a chance to occur, leading to confusion and maladaptive functioning. Early sexual Victimization can lead to development of maladaptive scripts for sexual behavior, this can occur when a child is being rewarded by the abuser (with affection) for engaging in sexual activity. Regrettably, some children that are sexually abused may come to view sex as prerequisite for affection, and thus engage in sexual activity with many partners, or be willing to engage in risky sexual activity with their partner. Stigmatization, in which the child may feel stigmatized as someone who is sexually deviant, could lead to later sexual risk behavior, if feelings of being sexually deviant become internalized and part of the child’s self-concept.
Children and Adolescents Who Have Been Abused May Display The Following:
• Sexual awareness beyond his/her years
• Poor self-imaged
• Sexual acting out behaviors
• Aggressive, disruptive, and sometimes illegal behavior
• Decline in academic performance
• Interruptions in memory and cognition
• Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
• Inability to trust or love others
• Difficulty trusting self to make decisions
• Suicidal thoughts/ideations
• Self-injurious behavior
• Engage in self-isolating behaviors
• Passive, withdrawn or clingy behavior
• Experiment with drugs and alcohol
• Engage in brief, often dysfunctional relationships
• Exhibit clingy behaviors
Early sexual victimization, specifically, incest undermines the patterns of care and socialization of vulnerable individuals. When a child is abused by a trusted adult, the implication of the abuse is compounded by betrayal. Betrayal, in which the child feels betrayed by someone close to him/her (by the abuser, by other’s reactions to disclosure of the abuse, or by other’s failure to realize the abuse is occurring), may make it difficult for abused individuals to form trusting relationships, and thus may lead to a series of brief but abusive relationships. Children who are abused may also struggle with judging the trustworthiness of others. Consequently, children and adolescents that are abused internalize feelings of powerlessness, in which children who are abused learn that they do not have the ability to control the sexual aspects of relationships, leading to risky sexual behavior in adulthood.
Often the severe emotional damage to sexually abused children does not surface until adolescence or even later, when many abused children are more likely to develop maladaptive coping skills to manage stress. An adult who was abused as a child often has trouble establishing lasting and stable personal relationships. Adult survivors of CSA may have trouble with physical closeness, touching, intimacy, and trust as adults. They are also at higher risk for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, medical illness, and problems at school or work.
It is essential to healthy development that children and adolescents receive treatment immediately following abuse. Treatment can include individual therapy, family therapy, group therapy or a combination of all three. Helping the child to recognize the abuse was not caused by something they did or did not do is an importance first step to healthy recovery.